My first memory of Jagjit Singh is a song my cousin would play on his cassette player in the 1980s??. In the harsh winter of Kashmir, after days of snow, Ravi would sit in his room, akangri tucked under his pheran, and listen to Jagjit Singh endlessly. He must have been in his early 20s then, and, I suppose, in love.
“Kal chaudhvin ki raat thi, shab bhar raha charcha tera” would waft across his room almost continuously, as he consumed cup after cup of kehwa tea, sometimes with his friends. I was too young to appreciate the ghazal at the time, and truth be told, I hated Jagjit Singh for being such a constant presence in Ravi’s life.
At a concert in Chashma Shaahi, Ravi had even managed to get his autograph on the back of his ticket.
By the time I fell in love, Kashmir was far behind us. We were in exile. In the 10ft by 12ft room in a Jammu colony, when the memory of my unreciprocated love tore my heart apart, I would seek solace in his voice. Apart from Mirza Ghalib, he beautifully sang some immortal lines by the likes of Ahmed Faraz, Sudarshan Fakir, Nida Fazli and Bashir Badr, among others.
Ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh. File photo
“Phir kisi rahguzar par shayad, hum kabhi mil sakein, magar shayad; Apne honthon par sajana chaahta hun, aa tujhe mein gunguna chaahta hun; Munh ki baat sune har koi, dil ke dard ko jaane kaun, aawazon ke baazaron mein, khamoshi pehchaane kaun” —I devoured them all, and the more I heard them, the more they made me plunge deeper into a well of melancholy. But who cared? I was in love, and I believed only Jagjit Singh and the poets he sang understood love and how it ravaged hearts.
The year we left Kashmir (1990) was also a tragic year for Jagjit Singh and his wife Chitra. They lost their son in a road accident. While Chitra quit singing after that, Jagjit Singh poured his grief into the music he produced after a brief hiatus. By that time I was in college, and his voice in Kahkashan would keep us awake for nights as we ruminated over love and loss. It was then I also discovered how he had extracted pain from the words of the Keats of Punjabi poetry, Shiv Kumar Batalvi. When he sang Shikra yaar banaya, you could feel yourself feeding your heart to the shikra (sparrow hawk) that Batalvi wrote about.
Though we were separated by 35 years, and I don’t believe in astrology, I secretly took pride in the fact that our birthday was separated by just two days. So, here was a man born in a Sikh family in Rajasthan, who single-handedly popularized Urdu and introduced ghazals to a large mass of people who didn’t understand much of the language. It happened at a time when listening to and appreciating ghazals were considered an elite occupation. There were stalwarts like Mehdi Hassan, Talat Mahmood and Begum Akhtar. Very few among those who later flocked to London’s Royal Albert Hall or Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium to listen to Jagjit Singh would relate to the maestros. Jagjit Singh demolished notions of elitism from the start. He stirred the soul of the common man.
In 1996, I came to Delhi, right after college, to be a journalist. Apart from Van Gogh’s Lust for Life, I brought with me an assortment of Jagjit Singh ghazals, all of them recorded in a store in Chandigarh’s Sector 17. Its owner was a fan and would play him all day long. A year later, I got a chance to hear him live at the Siri Fort Auditorium. An arts and culture reporter friend promised to arrange passes for a friend and me.
“I have a bottle of whiskey in my room,” he told me. After the concert, it was natural to get drunk. We reached the venue; the queue of people with VIP passes was about a kilometre long. The reporter friend was nowhere in sight. I tried to flaunt my journalist credentials, but it didn’t work. We lost hope, and sat on the footpath. We smoked in silence. “The show must have started,” the friend muttered. We decided to go straight to whiskey. As we passed Siri Fort again, there was no one at the gate. We looked at each other, and without a word, we entered. At the final gate of the hall as well, there was no one. We just entered. Jagjit Singh had just started his first ghazal. About 30-40 people were standing, lost in their world. We sat in the well. After the first ghazal, Shabana Azmi made an announcement. Those who are standing, they can came right on the stage. My friend yanked my arm, and we were the first to climb upon the stage. For the next two hours, we sat 2ft away, okay three, as Jagjit Singh rendered ghazal after ghazal. On the bus back to my friend’s barsaati, we sang like mad men. We drank till the wee hours of the morning.
The city turned some of us lonelier by the day. We fell in love, suffered in love, lost our near and dear ones, made careers, or what is perceived to be a career. Our hair went grey. Emotions lost their edge. But on some balmy night, when there was no one else to go to, we would seek refuge in Jagjit Singh’s voice. Long ago, he sang these lines of Ghalib’s: “Maut se pehle aadmi, gam se nijaat paaye kyun...” Stting in a metro train, when I learnt about his death, I hoped that in death my friend would be rid of life’s sorrows.
Rahul Pandita is an associate editor with Open magazine.